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The season of Epiphany begins on January 6, on the twelfth day of Christmas, and continues until the opening of Lent. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “theophany” (the preferred word in the Eastern Church). It is the season which concentrates upon God’s manifestation of God’s self through Jesus. Consequently, the visit of the wise men to the Christ child, Jesus’ baptism, his visit as a child of twelve with his parents to the Temple and the miracle of the marriage supper at Cana are four stories traditionally told during Epiphany – all signs of God’s manifestation to humanity through the person and work of Jesus.
The first mention of the church’s celebration of Epiphany is from Clement of Alexandria, who died c. 217. It was firmly established in the Eastern Church by the fourth century, where it ranked with Easter and Pentecost as one of the three primary feast days of the Church. The Eastern Church exclusively celebrated the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany Day.
When the celebration of this season was embraced by the Western Church, both its character and the length of the season changed. Whereas the Eastern Church celebrated Christ’s baptism, the Western Church celebrated a number of “manifestations” of God, but with a particular emphasis upon the coming of the Magi as the event when God was first “manifested” to the Gentiles. As well, the season of Epiphany was extended to Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday that is the beginning of the season of Lent.
The reason for the shift in focus between the two churches is intriguing. Many in the Eastern Church held that when Jesus was born, he was only a normal human being. Christ’s divine nature, they taught, came upon him at his baptism. This came to be known as the “Adoptionist Heresy”. Thus, Christ’s birth was celebrated along with his baptism on a single day, in order to celebrate both the physical birth of Jesus and the birth of his divinity as the Christ.1
When the Western Church embraced the feast of Epiphany, they wished to make clear that they believed that Jesus was divine from his birth (in fact, from his conception). So it was that the Western Church separated the birth of Jesus from his baptism, so that the former would not be eclipsed by the latter. To do so, they moved the celebration of his birthday from January 6 (still the birthday of the Christ Child in Eastern tradition) to December 25. And they concentrated the focus of January 6, not on Jesus’ baptism but on the visit of the Magi.